Monday, February 16, 2009

why angsty teens keep diaries and write bad poetry

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Brain scientists are starting to understand something poets, songwriters and diarists have long known: putting feelings into words helps ease the mind.

"It is a pretty well-established finding that this occurs, but we don't know why," Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles, said on Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

"When you put feelings into words, you are turning on the same regions in the brain that are involved in emotional self-control," Lieberman said.

"It regulates distress," said Lieberman, who studies the brain using technology known as functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, which highlights brain regions as they become active.

Lieberman's findings are based on studies in which healthy subjects lie in an MRI machine and view emotionally evocative pictures, such as scared or angry faces. Study participants touch a button corresponding to a word that expresses that emotion.

When study subjects put feelings into words in this way, the researchers noted increased brain activity in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region known for dampening negative emotions.

At the same time, they saw decreases in activity in the amygdala, the brain machinery responsible for processing feelings about relationships and emotions like fear, rage and aggression.

Lieberman said this may explain why many teenagers and others take up pen and paper when they are filled with angst.

"I think it certainly could play a role in why people of any age write diaries or bad lyrics to songs," he said.

"That is certainly a possibility."

Lieberman said he is now doing studies to see how putting words into feelings might help people who fear spiders or have anxiety disorders.

What I want to know is: how much difference would it make if you thought another person was hearing you/reading you? In other words, is it simply the action of forming the words (I think that's what they're trying to say) or would the effect be amplified by communicating the emotion, feeling heard? After all, this is, to some degree, what much talk therapy is based upon. But, ooh, wouldn't it be interesting if the therapist simply didn't matter?

I wrote bad poetry as a teen--but I gave it to my girlfriend. I don't know if I would have bothered if I thought no one would see it. When I write these days, it's for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's to answer a question (Slow River, Always, The Blue Place), sometimes it's to have a blast with story and explore a world (Ammonite, Hild), sometimes it's to play with a nifty notion ("Yaguara"). And I expect, intend and believe that all my fiction will one day be read--and enjoyed. It's for me, first, but then, dear readers, for you. A gift.

But nonfiction is more complicated. There's this blog, for example. It's a gift, too: a thank you for being my readers. It's also an experiment in community building. And, hmmn, okay, yes, very occasionally it's a way to vent (all those rants--see sidebar for some of my favourites).

But the essays, what are they for? They're not rants. I don't get paid for them. (Or not usually.) They don't soothe my emotions. They don't answer questions. They do, however, help me organise my thoughts. And at some point soon I want to find time to write an essay about reading--the biochemistry and neurophysiology of it, the difference between reading non-fiction on the screen and reading novels, the fate of civilisation... But not today. Today I have to go play with Hild, then work some more on my chemical lurve movie outline.

Meanwhile, the sun is shining. Birds are singing. Life is good. May you all have a perfectly fabulous day.

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